Cloning, part two: Hearsay, hearsay!

The trouble started back in December 2002, when the BBC aired a documentary film that openly probed the tenets of a popular sect. The day after the broadcast, Crispian Hollis, a cleric who worked for the sect in question, denounced the British state broadcasters for airing a film that dared to publicly challenge his beliefs. Hollis alleged that the filmmakers had indulged in ‘unfounded guesswork’ — and he fumed, sensibly enough, that passing off any such guesswork as documentary fact is ‘not only unscholarly but runs the risk of undermining [journalistic] integrity.’

But closer inspection of the offending broadcast suggested that Hollis’s indignation might have been misplaced. In discussing their subject matter — the dogma of the sect in question — the filmmakers had actually made it a point to favor definitive evidence over unfounded hearsay. What sort of hearsay had they tried to get to the bottom of? It turns out that Hollis and his fellow clerics swear:

  • that there is an invisible male ape watching over all of earth, in great detail, at all times (presumably never sleeping).
  • that this ape parses all human conversations (and even unspoken thoughts), in all languages, simultaneously.
  • and that the ape in question has been doing all this since being born — asexually — more than two millenia ago.

So what evidence is there to support these claims? Sadly, the BBC filmmakers were apparently unable to reach the ape himself for comment, and the leaders of Hollis’ sect insist that their claims rest on eye-witness accounts written by several men who interacted with the ape early in his life, when he was living in southwest Asia (rather than, say, in the sky). Though varying in some details, the cited accounts all portray the ape as readily visible, susceptible to sleep, and not — to the outside eye, at least — especially interested in, or even aware of, the everyday life of anyone in, say, Guatemala or Korea (to name two places where the sect in question has become particularly popular).

As hearsay goes, Hollis deserves points for boldness. In the annals of medicine and peer-reviewed research, there is little, if anything, that could rival his sect’s claims. Let’s take the two thousand year-plus lifespan detail, for example. That would be roughly eight-fold overripe even for a Galápagos tortoise, thought by most biologists to be the longest lived animal with eyes. Which brings us to the question of the ape’s remarkable worldwide vision. Most primates do indeed have quite good eyesight; nonetheless, watching the whole surface of a ball-shaped planet at once would seem to pose problems for the architecture typical of paired vertebrate eyes.

And then there’s the asexual birth bit. Some birds (turkeys, for example) may do it. And, indeed, bees do it. But, so far, there’s no clear evidence of asexual reproduction in any wild (i.e., non-laboratory) mammal. Moreover, even if a female mammal could bear asexually conceived young, she would have to pull off a pretty neat trick to make a son, in particular: one of her X chromosomes (or some other part of the genome) would have to mutate, wholesale, into a Y chromosome, in order to masculinize the developing fetus. Birds — lucky them — don’t have this problem, as it is their females, not males, who have two highly distinct sex chromosomes like our X and Y.

So it seems understandable that the foregoing claims by Crispian Hollis’s sect might provoke some skepticism. But if we’re to gauge the boldness of a claim by the degree of hand-wringing among its makers, then it is the apeness of the ape that really stands out. When formally endorsed by the sect in 1996 — ostensibly to square its dogma with a vast weight of empirical evidence on the matter — the fact that humans are apes was officially fudged with an ‘ontological leap’. This was apparently done largely to quell horror, among the sect’s adherents, at being (versus merely descending from) animals. Hollis’ all-seeing sky ape, being a man (if an unusual one, in having been born asexually), was thus separated from all non-human apes by some sort of unprecedented evolutionary jump — a qualitative material difference that the sect, conveniently, has declined to try to characterize in any concrete and testable terms.

Here it’s worth noting that such careful dogma-pruning has long been used to help priesthoods stay afloat amid occasional tidal waves of new human knowledge that threaten to obviate pulpits themselves, along with fossilized bronze-age cosmologies. Hollis’s sect, for example, had already conceded, centuries earlier, that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than vice versa, despite the absence of this basic fact in the sacred texts that the sect typically relied on. But theological revision has limits — and when further tweaking would appear to gravely threaten priestly interests, smart clerics throw a trump card familiar to all parents (virgin or not): believe because we say so. And so many a sect, including Hollis’ own, extols as virtue the belief in some ever-dwindling suite of empirically groundless claims, coddling the willful ignorance that is ‘faith’.